Iraqi Christians: Caught in a Refugee Web
"In Iraq we don't feel the holiday. You can't even put on a cross," says Khams, 37. Only a few months before their last Christmas in Iraq, the church where his family prayed was the target of a bombing attack, and his mother and sister narrowly escaped injury. In the days leading up to the holiday, Khams's mother, Samira, saw Islamic militants chop off the head of a man on the sidewalk as she rode by in a taxi. Afraid that their church might be attacked again, Khams's family spent that last Christmas in the safety of an all-Christian village called Karakosh, located some 20 kilometers from Mosul, the northern Iraqi city that has boiled over with insurgent violence and ethnic tensions since the start of the United States occupation of Iraq. "Before, all the family, relatives and friends were there, and there was safety to make a party, to celebrate," says the soft-spoken Khams, who has a short-trimmed, graying mustache and a receding hairline. "Now you are scared to even go to church."
Khams and his family are among an estimated 2,000 Chaldean Christians members of one of the Middle East's oldest Christian sects and who belong to the Catholic Church who have been quietly immigrating to Istanbul over the last two years (even larger numbers of Chaldeans have been seeking refuge in Syria and Jordan). Coming on tourist visas, the Chaldeans arrive in Istanbul hoping to be quickly resettled in the United States and Australia, where many already have relatives living, or somewhere in Europe. Instead, many have found themselves stuck in Turkey, living illegally on their expired tourist visas while they wait to move onwards. Although no exact figures exist, experts estimate that the Christian population of Iraq made up mostly of the Catholic Chaldeans and the independent Assyrian church is rapidly diminishing, with some 800,000 Christians currently living in the country of 27 million, compared to 1.4 million a decade ago.
And while the violence that has gripped Iraq over the last few years has affected all Iraqis, Christians say they have felt particularly vulnerable since, unlike the country's Kurds or Sunni and Sh'ia Muslims, they don't have a militia to protect their community's interests. Meanwhile, as the insurgency in Iraq began to take on a more Islamist character, the country's Christians increasingly found themselves targeted by militants, the most notable example being the coordinated bombing in August 2004 of five churches in Baghdad and Mosul, which killed over a dozen. In late January this year, car bombings outside Christian churches raised new concerns about sectarian violence.
George Mushe, 51, who came to Istanbul from Baghdad with his wife and three children, described a worsening spiral of violence that finally forced his family to flee. His son, who was working in a business that supplied spare parts to the American forces, had his life threatened and ultimately had to quit his job, while his two daughters luckily survived the bombing of the secondary school they were attending. Mushe, meanwhile, was forced to close down his business, a wedding hall that catered mostly to Christians, since holding events there simply became too dangerous. "There's no life in Iraq now. If you leave your family to go to work or church, you don't know if you will see them again," Mushe says, while sipping on a tea in an Istanbul pastry shop. "Before the war they looked at us as different, but we could go to church, to work."
"Our patriarch and bishops don't want us to leave Iraq. They say our churches are now empty," he added. "They say that Muslims are also being killed. But what can we do? They are bombing churches."
For Nather Khams's family, the comfortable life they knew in Mosul, an ethnically mixed city of Christians and Muslim Arabs and Kurds, quickly deteriorated after the launch of the American offensive. Sitting in the living room of the small, two-bedroom apartment the family of five now shares in Istanbul, Khams's mother, Samira, pulls out a light blue headscarf as a way of demonstrating that change. "I couldn't go out unless I wrapped this around my head," Samira says as she covers her tousled jet-black hair with the headscarf.
Khams's 30-year-old sister, Maysam, says she found herself under increasing pressure to put on a headscarf and stop wearing slacks at the Mosul vocational school where she was a teacher. After the school started receiving anonymous telephoned threats against any female teachers not wearing a headscarf, Maysam decided to quit her job and stay at home. The family finally decided to leave Iraq after Khams's father, Harbi, who ran a business distributing a pro-government newspaper, survived a shooting attack on his car. "It was a mixed feeling," Nather Khams, who ran a business in Mosul selling computer hardware, said about leaving Iraq. "We wanted to get to a safe place, but we were sad to leave our memories, our house, our friends."
In Istanbul, the Chaldeans have traded a life of certain danger for one of uncertain waiting. They have moved en masse to the city's Kurtulus neighborhood, one of the few districts in the city that still has sizable Greek and Armenian communities. A steep walk down one hill and then up another one leads to St. Anthony's cathedral, a massive brick church on Istanbul's famous Istiklal boulevard, where the Chaldeans have been given the basement chapel as their own. On Sundays, Chaldeans can be seen leaving the church, as they wend their way through the narrow streets that lead back to Kurtulus, many stopping at a cut-rate outdoor bazaar to buy their fruits and vegetables for the week. "The church is central in our life," says George Mushe, who serves as a deacon in the Chaldeans Istanbul church. "Having a church here in Istanbul has been very good, to be able to pray in our own language."
Also not far from Kurtulus is the office of Caritas, the Vatican's international aid agency, which is the main organization working with the Iraqi Christians in Istanbul. Located on the grounds of the Vatican's consulate building, Caritas provides the Iraqis with social services and assistance in obtaining visas to third countries. Since the Iraqi children can't attend Turkish schools because of their illegal status, Caritas also opened its own school, providing daily classes for elementary school-aged children.
In a space built for 65 pupils, some 250 children now study in classrooms that have been subdivided several times over. Even a chilly shed in a courtyard has been turned into a classroom.
Tulin Turkcan, Caritas's director of refugee services, says the organization has been overwhelmed with work over the last two years. "People are coming all the time with questions and needs. It's not easy," she says. "They need basic assistance schooling, medicine, food. They need assistance from the government, but they know there is not assistance, so the most important thing is for them to be resettled in a third country." Over the last year, though, the number of Iraqi Christians being resettled has decreased significantly, Turkcan says. The United States and Australia are granting fewer and fewer families asylum. Turkcan and others working with refugees in the Middle East believe that fewer Iraqis are being granted refugees status because western countries and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the main organization responsible for determining asylum claims, fear that giving more Iraqis the opportunity to go to the west would create a pull factor that would eventually lead to a broader exodus from Iraq. Some suspect, meanwhile, that Washington is holding back on granting Iraqi Christians asylum because doing so would be an admission of its failure to create a post-Saddam Iraq that is safe for all Iraqis. For people like Nather Khams, days are now spent simply waiting for an answer to their asylum applications. With many Turks struggling themselves to find work, most of the Iraqi men are unemployed, although some of the women have been able to find work as domestic helpers. Khams says he and the rest of his family wake up at 11am most days, as if in some kind of collective stupor, and mostly stay at home watching Arabic satellite television.
"We have no rights here. We don't have a permit to live here," he says with a furrowed brow. "We don't feel stable here. You can't find your future here." Could he and his family imagine going back to Iraq if the situation there improved? Samira Khams waves her hands emphatically. "We can't go back," she says, her voice rising. "We have sad memories there. We couldn't go back, even if it became good there."
Latest from Turkey
We would like to hear your opinion about the new site. Tell us what you like, and what you don't like in an email and send it to: firstname.lastname@example.org